|(Clockwise from top) An auto carrying six passengers makes its way through DC Dey Road in Tangra at 6.20pm on Tuesday, hours after the crackdown that triggered an assault on police; two more autos with five passengers each pass by around the same time, oblivious to a police contingent. Pictures by Pradip Sanyal
Autorickshaw drivers used to breaking rules and getting away with it attacked police on Tuesday when a sergeant was prosecuting some of them for ferrying more than four passengers at a time.
An inspector and four sergeants were among the eight cops who were pushed, shoved and slammed with helmets at Tangra around noon after one of them, Rakesh Choubey, slapped cases on several auto drivers for carrying excess passengers. The outnumbered policemen, part of a prosecution drive launched on Monday, were forced to retreat immediately.
“There were about 250 people on the other side. We couldn’t have reasoned with them. We were trying to come out of the place. That’s when they hit some of us,” said one of the assaulted cops.
Autos carrying more than four passengers are liable for a penalty of Rs 3,000 each, but drivers care little about the rule and many commuters couldn’t be bothered about the risk of travelling through thick traffic with a part of the body sticking out.
Sheikh Imran, a 17-year-old school dropout training to be a car driver, had his left toe sliced off in an auto accident near Beleghata Main Road on Sunday night. He was the fifth passenger in the vehicle.
Tuesday’s incident at Tangra, off the EM Bypass, demonstrated the police’s helplessness after decades of looking the other way as the auto brigade turned into a Frankenstein created by political patronage.
Choubey, a sergeant with the Beleghata Traffic Guard, had been prosecuting autos violating the four-passenger limit near the slaughterhouse on DC Dey Road in Tangra, about 2km from Moulali.
Some auto drivers were arguing against the fine when a few more gathered to stand by them. “Just then, another auto was stopped for carrying more than four passengers. This driver refused to show his licence and vehicle documents, triggering a heated argument,” an officer recounted.
Kalyan Ghosh, the additional officer-in-charge of the traffic guard where Choubey is posted, was passing by and noticed the commotion. As he alighted from his vehicle, the auto drivers started abusing him too.
“Sergeant Choubey sent an SOS over his walkie-talkie and three other officers — Pradip Adhikary, Sandip Bala and Sarfaraz Nawaz — soon arrived at the spot. By this time, the argument had escalated and the auto drivers were pushing and shoved us. They were also continuously hurling invectives at us. They picked up potatoes lying on the road and threw them at us. Some of them targeted us with sticks,” an officer said.
Sources said some local residents arrived on motorbikes and joined the auto drivers in attacking the cops with their helmets. The retreating police officers allegedly thrashed an auto driver in retaliation.
“An auto driver was injured (in the skirmish). He was taken to NRS hospital and discharged after treatment,” said Rajiv Mishra, the joint commissioner of police (headquarters), said.
Mohammad Israil, the injured auto driver, was identified as the one who had refused to show his licence and vehicle documents, allegedly provoking the assault. He has been arrested and booked for “voluntarily causing hurt, deterring a public servant from discharging his duty and using criminal force on a public servant”. If proved, the offence can land Israil behind bars for three years.
A group of about 50 auto drivers blocked the Palmer Bazar crossing around 1pm in protest against the crackdown. They lifted the blockade after senior police officers intervened.
“Autos have been allowed a free run for many years. Trying to enforce discipline suddenly may well be met with violent opposition from auto drivers,” said Sandhi Mukherjee, a former deputy commissioner of traffic police.
An inspector said the humiliation of being assaulted in uniform was more painful than getting injured. “The policemen were trying to enforce the law. It is very humiliating if a policeman has to retreat after being assaulted.”
Within hours of the assault, autos on that route were back to carrying five or even six passengers.
The police did not dare prosecute them. Metro visited the site in the evening and found autos violating the “blue-book rule” without a care. Two vans carrying at least 30 cops were parked along the road.
Transport minister Madan Mitra said he would speak to the arrested auto driver as well as the cops.
“No word is enough to condemn the attack on the police. The government is very keen to rein in auto drivers and word had been sent to all auto unions, irrespective of political affiliation. This incident could well have been part of a sabotage attempt by Citu-led operators,” he told Metro.